St. Thomas More's hats – and other relics – coming soon to DC

St Thomas More Public Domain CNA St Thomas More. Public Domain.

Centuries-old relics and artifacts of St. Thomas More will be coming to the U.S. for the first time in an exhibit that curators hope will evangelize today's faithful.

The exhibit "celebrates a powerful and eloquent example of Christian discipleship," said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, which co-sponsored the exhibit.

"In an era when many people look to secular authorities for inspiration and guidance on what is right and just, Thomas More's example underscores the necessity of living our lives according to the dictates of a well-formed conscience," he continued.

"God's Servant First: The Life and Legacy of Thomas More" will be open to the public at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. from Sept. 16, 2016 through March 31, 2017.

The title is taken from what are believed to be St. Thomas More's last words before he was beheaded: "I die the King's good servant, and God's first." More was the Lord High Chancellor of England under the reign of King Henry VIII from 1529-32, second only to the king in the realm. He was also regarded as one of the chief Catholic intellectuals in Europe at the time.

Henry had previously married his dead brother's wife Catherine of Aragon with a papal dispensation, but after 16 years of marriage and no male heir, he wanted an annulment. This was denied him by Pope Clement VII, but Henry secretly married his mistress, Anne Boleyn, in 1532 and worked to have the marriage lawfully recognized by the clergy and bishops.

More resigned his office because he would not consent to Henry's actions. When Henry later requested that More take an oath affirming his divorce and re-marriage to Ann and the legitimacy of their child together, More refused. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and later beheaded by Henry in 1535. He is recognized by the Church as a martyr.

The exhibit tells of More's life, witness, and his influence on major figures in the beginning of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

It took nine months to assemble, and features a display of relics, artifacts, and sacred art and objects from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, most of which have not yet been seen in the U.S. A relic containing pieces of St. Thomas More's jawbone and tooth will be on display for veneration.

The exhibit includes personal items of More, like two hats that he wore, copies of his works, a gold crucifix that he kept on his person, and a brick from his house.

Other items from his lifetime that are in the display include a chasuble sewn by Katherine of Aragon, a prayer scroll and a copy of the Divine Office from the period, a ring of St. John Fisher, and the skull of Cardinal John Morton, More's patron and councilor to King Henry VII.

"These things bring us very close to the human beings at the heart of this story," Janet Graffius, curator of collections at Stonyhurst College which supplied most of the items in the exhibit, said at the introductory press conference. The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst joined the Knights of Columbus in forming and sponsoring the exhibit.

"Thomas More's house was the center of scholarship and also the center of his love for his family. It was a place renowned throughout Europe for being hospitable and merry," Graffius continued, "and just the peace, the physical peace of that house allows us to perhaps feel some of the echoes of that happiness and scholarship."

The exhibit will also spiritually connect today's generation with More's generation, Graffius explained. "It connects them to a time when people in the past are facing the same problems that people are facing nowadays," she said.

At the end of the exhibit is a section on Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States, and his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Carrolls both attended the Jesuit College of St. Omer in France in the 1740s, the predecessor of Stonyhurst.

"Both John and Charles Carroll were heavily influenced by the example of Thomas More during their years as students," Patrick Kelly, executive director of the St. John Paul II shrine, noted. "At St. Omer's, the legacy of Thomas More was greatly revered, and the students would remove their hats out of respect as his name was read aloud during their daily martyrology," he added.

The Carrolls saw religious freedom as "foundational" to the United States, he said, and this was the patrimony they inherited from St. Thomas More.

More in US

There is a reason why the exhibit is housed at the St. John Paul II shrine in Washington, D.C., Supreme Knight Carl Anderson explained. John Paul II declared More the patron saint of politicians and statesmen in 2000, and Washington is the U.S. capital city.

"At the time, St. John Paul II also said that Thomas More demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience, which is the witness of God Himself," Kelly explained. "A shrine dedicated to John Paul II is a fitting place for this exhibit."

"John Paul II himself had experienced government attempts to suppress the Catholic faith in his own country of Poland," Kelly continued. "And throughout his life, he spoke frequently and fervently of the inherent right of persons in faith communities to live their faith fully in the public square."

Anderson also admitted that More's witness to religious freedom is especially important today.

"When Pope Francis came to the United States last year, he indicated that religious liberty, rights was conscience was a very important component of the American tradition," Anderson said. "So we think that this is a way of carrying forward a bit of the concern that Pope Francis had when he visited the United States."

Kelly hoped that the exhibit will teach the faithful about More's witness to conscience and his integrity.

More laid a "brilliant example for a new generation" about the "unity of faith and action," Kelly said. He also had a "very well-formed conscience," a lack of which has created a "crisis that we face today."

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